Written by Zena Khan
Emerging realism painter Mohd Fazli Othman is well known for his dedication to the traditional tenets of figurative art. Understanding his genre from both a technical and historical perspective allows him the freedom to update his style with current images, often anthropological in nature, as can be seen in his latest painting, Daily Struggle.
Daily Struggle is the last in Fazli’s series of paintings on garbage collectors. Fazli lives near the largest landfill in Malaysia, and this sparked his interest in the individuals involved in the collection and management of the garbage industry. In an approach similar to method of acting, he began his investigations into the subject by actually working as a garbage collector and cleaner after certain large public events, in order to understand the mindset through experience. In his pre-production process, he documented these experiences via a series of self-portrait photographs, dressed in the distinctive orange uniform and posing with props including brooms against backdrops of rubbish in the actual environments where he was working. From this self-involvement, initially came paintings with self-portraits, as a way to transmit his personal experience to his audience. Daily Struggle takes another step forward by featuring a portrait of three unknown cleaners, in an attempt by the artist to raise awareness not only on social empathy but also to evoke civic responsibility for the community’s shared spaces.
Horizontally the canvas is divided into thirds; the top third is bright blue sky, the next third is a royal blue hoarding and the bottom third is a roadside scene. The traffic light, road dividers and black-and-white striped rail and curb are artifacts, which mark almost all junctions nationally. Fazli positions three flags throughout the work: a Malaysian flag at the top left, an orange flag warning motorists of men at work ahead to the right and in-between is the flag of Selangor. In this way, what was originally a general scene has been definitely contextualized in the artist’s home state Selangor. Not only is Selangor where Fazli’s concept was born, the artist feels there are now several issues besetting the state, ranging from the drought to the influx of foreign workers to respect for the environment and those who maintain it.
Large-scale works historically were reserved for important subjects; Fazli upsets this notion by shifting the scale into an area of depicting genre scenes of ordinary people, in a setting familiar to all Malaysians. The three cleaners, recognizable in their bright orange jumpsuits, are also life-size, adding to their realism and giving them due prominence as the subjects of Fazli’s discourse. The title Daily Struggle refers to the daily act of cleaning the city. Bringing the cleaning crew and the repetitiveness of their task to the fore, Fazli raises the point that the maintenance of our landscape is a joint effort that needs to be undertaken by the whole community, and the level of pride in the physical landscape is an indication of the pride that the society has in its social and intellectual landscape.
The beauty of realism art is that through figurative elements, viewers are able to immediately recognize symbols and create associations necessary for the artist’s message to be transmitted. Fazli’s delight in the traditional aspects of his art is evident in the perfect perspectives and proportions in the large-scale Daily Struggle. His wonderful painterly skills are exciting in a contemporary art landscape, which often turns to the excitement of new media art. This is in large part due to his ability to heighten the currency of his Renaissance-esque way of working through the currency of his content. Daily Struggle presents not only a technical challenge for the artist but also a discourse on civic responsibility in an upbeat tone. As the last work in this series, audiences can look to it to appreciate his ability to mix formalistic and contemporary, and anticipate great things to come from this engaging young painter.
Title: Daily Struggle
Artist: Mohd Fazli Othman
Size: 214 cm x 304 cm
Medium: Oil on Canvas